By ERIKA ANDERSON Special to the Bulletin | Published September 26, 2013
SMYRNA—Staff archivist Angelique Richardson doesn’t hesitate when asked to name her favorite item in the archdiocesan Office of Archives and Records.
She gently picks up a book filled with loopy cursive handwriting and runs her hands across its pages. The book contains the Mitchell family’s history, written by author Margaret Mitchell’s father, Eugene.
“This is definitely my favorite,” she said. “The story he wrote about his wife was just beautiful. I was sitting at my desk, reading it and just crying.”
The family history book was part of the estate of Joseph Mitchell, nephew of Margaret Mitchell, who left a multi-million dollar bequest to the Archdiocese of Atlanta last year. In addition to the financial assets, the bequest included a large collection of personal items, including several copies of first editions of “Gone With the Wind.”
Though Richardson said the Mitchell collection is a huge draw for the Office of Archives and Records, the department, located on the first floor of the archdiocesan Chancery, contains more than 1,000 linear feet of records, dating from 1822. Archives consist of school records, sacramental registers, parish and mission records, photographs, departmental records, publications, subject files, archbishops’ papers and audiovisual materials. There are also physical items, like artwork and crosses—even a full set of original Stations of the Cross in need of restoration from St. Anthony of Padua Church in Atlanta’s West End.
With a mission to collect, preserve and make available the permanent and official records of the archdiocese, its people, institutions and associations, the Archdiocesan Archives was first established in 1992 by archivist Tony Dees. Since then, the office has been collecting records and unique materials that document the management, organization and history of the archdiocese since it was formed out of the Diocese of Savannah in 1956.
In 2008, a new initiative began to reorganize the Office of Archives and Records in order to offer better access to its resources and to expand its responsibilities. Carolyn Denton, who recently retired as the full-time director of Archives and Records, said everything changed when Deacon Dennis Dorner became chancellor of the archdiocese.
“Until we moved into the new Chancery, we did not have even enough space to store materials. There was not much outreach to the parishes because the archives had little to offer and nowhere to put anything. It is only since Deacon Dorner took on the responsibility of the archives that the department came out of the dark ages,” she said. “He established an Archives Advisory Board made up of distinguished area archivists, clergy, and knowledgeable Chancery staff to provide guidance and planning ideas. Then we moved into a new space and could actually create a true archival facility with climate control. Finally the department was in a position to offer safe and secure care of materials. It can take in materials in good faith from parishes and be able to properly care for those materials in a way that the parishes cannot.”
Now the Office of Archives and Records, which is headed by new director Claire Jenkins, is hoping to expand its collection—and staff members are looking for parishioners from local churches to help.
“We are interested in any kind of historical papers that represent the history of the archdiocese and its churches. Photographs, priest records, yearbooks—anything that seems like it might have historical significance—we want it,” Richardson said.
Denton said they are particularly looking for items from the early years when there was no archives department.
“Hopefully there are some interesting items tucked away in private homes or in old parish cabinets that are just waiting to be discovered and safely transferred to our archives to fill in the history of the archdiocese and add to the continuity of the corporate memory,” she said. “For instance, we have a very small photographic collection of early images. We would love to have photographs of the original interiors of our churches, particularly the older ones, of early parish life and significant events, first Communion classes and clergy portraits.”
Deacon Dorner said that the sacramental records are more than just history—they represent the life of the Church. These important archives are not just a window to the past, he said, but they also provide a key for the future.
“The archival history of the archdiocese defines the way that the shepherds of the diocese and the people of God are moving forward in their spiritual life,” he said. “We can see from the archival records how the Church responds to the real world events that impact the Church every day. One of the most fascinating collections is the bishop’s correspondence files, which form a rich history of the pastoral mission of both the bishop and the archdiocese.”
In addition to record preservation and management, the Office of Archives and Records is also open by appointment for scholarly research. As the staff archivist, Richardson especially likes this part of her job.
“I really enjoy processing the records, but I love helping researchers find what they need. People get so excited when we find something they’ve been searching for,” she said.
And though Denton is now retired, she still has a vision for the department she helped to build.
“When I walked into the Archives more than five years ago, it was strictly paper-based. No attempts had been made to address the ever-expanding digital archival assets. In the last couple of years we have put a lot of effort into laying the groundwork for capturing and managing digital records,” she said. “I see a major push going forward to build out the processes and procedures that will make the archdiocese’s digital archives a reality. Eventually the efficient management of operational digital records will be a smooth function of the everyday workflow. I also hope the Archives will be able to offer more services in the parishes by providing in-house records training to staff and advice on managing and preserving archival materials.”
Visit www.archatl.com/offices/archives for more information about the archdiocesan Office of Archives and Records or to donate any items of historical significance.